What are “Microaggressions?”
This year during Ministry Days at General Assembly, our yearly denominational meeting, the issue of ableism came up. “Ableism” is the term used to describe the prejudices and the negative beliefs that are held about people who have some physical or emotional limitations, and the resulting behaviors toward this population. There is some sensitivity about language that can be experienced as a microaggression toward those with some limitation.
Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. defines micro- aggressions as the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Here are some examples of micro aggressions that I think most of us recognize:
A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them.
An assertive female manager is labeled as a "bitch," while her male counterpart is described as "a forceful leader."
Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality.
Let’s think about mircoaggressions in terms of ableism. I have to be honest with you—this is something that wasn’t even on my radar before a few weeks ago. Black Lives Matter and institutional racism? I feel like I am making progress toward understanding that. Gender equality and gender fluidity? Again, I by no means think I am doing everything I can in relation to these issues, but I am at least aware and doing my best to be an advocate for change. But the idea that I was, unwittingly or not, committing ableist microaggressions just about every time I open my mouth, that took my breath away.
Parade of congregational banners at the annual UUA General Assembly. UUs are committed to Seven Principles that include the worth of each person, the need for justice and compassion, and the right to choose one’s own beliefs. Picture credit: http://www.uua.org/association
In response to the issues at Ministry Days, one of our retired ministers, Reverend Tom Schade, wrote in his blog:
The most prominent example of ableist language in our movement, however, is our social justice arm: Standing on the Side of Love ... The point here is not to convince you that ableist metaphors are a problem. The point is that we often think, even if it is ableist, ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ is a done deal and it would be too hard to change it. I'd like to offer a different possibility. I think we need to change this, and it's possible to change this. The important part of the ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ isn't the ‘Standing,’ it's that we're acting ‘on the Side of Love.’
He then went on to try to come up with a solutions to ableism in Unitarian Universalism: “
Start including our non-standing bodies in the message. Without changing the name officially, widen the images and merchandise. Start by offering ‘I Roll on the Side of Love’ or ‘Rolling on the Side of Love’ or ‘Sitting on the Side of Love’ t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items. Make it easy for people to get these items … Share (images) on your webpage … Offer more and more words as options -- we can dance, pray, sing, and act in lots of ways ‘on the Side of Love.’
Other options Rev Schade suggested:
Preaching on the Side of Love’ or ‘Serving on the Side of Love’ for ministers or ‘Teaching on the Side of Love’ or ‘Growing on the Side of Love’ for DREs. “Let's fix it, folks,” he says. “We're better than just throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Oh well.’”
I recently changed the words that we use to ask you to join in singing our hymns. Instead of saying “I invite you to stand in body or spirit”, I said “I invite you to rise in body or spirit.” What do you think about that change? What are other changes in our language that come to mind?
The Conundrum: Not Knowing What is Okay to Say
However, in our sincere desire to be sensitive to every one of every class, race, sexual there be a time when we are unable to speak or act for fear of hurting or disrespecting someone else. How do we affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person if we find ourselves unable to communicate for fear of what we might say or do? Does the choice then to slip into “I don’t know what I can say so I won’t say anything?” I just don’t think so.
What does it take to really treat a person with worth and dignity? When talking with gender fluid youth, they don’t feel respected if you are unwilling to use the pronouns they choose for themselves. When talking with Reverend Soto, she feels respected when I reach out to her as a whole person, not trying to discern what it is like to live in her body. When I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates, he wrote that he has difficulty feeling respected as a black man in a room full of white people. How do we treat each one another with respect, worth, and dignity?
I can only tell you that I have come up with for myself. I will reach out to everyone—not just the folks who seem like they are different from me because let’s face it not every difference is on the outside--and say to them, “The world is a very complicated place and I get so many confusing pieces of information, please let me know if I say or do anything that hurts or disrespects you, because I do not want to hurt you or disrespect you.” So that with that person, in that situation, I can adjust how I communicate with them. Not to be politically correct, but because I want to accept them as they are and as they want to be accepted.
Some of you might be thinking, “Are you going to use inclusive language during worship services? What if you’re quoting Universalist Hosea Ballou or the reading is by Unitarian Henry David Thoreau?” My answer is well sometimes I will make the changes if I can do so and maintain the integrity of the author’s message, but if modernizing and sensitizing takes away from the message I probably won’t. If I don’t change the language, I will say that this piece is from the 18th century and the language is not inclusive.
Will I stop using the hymns that use language of standing or running? Probably not entirely. I will try to be more sensitive to the hymns and readings and really try to be more aware of the inherent privilege and power and microaggressions in the readings and hymns. But I am not perfect. And I want to use hymns and readings that create a service that helps us affirm our values, provoke us to look within ourselves, and that pastor to the greatest number of you. Worship is a cohesive experience. From the moment we begin a service to the moment it ends, all the parts are designed to help create an experience that will hold before us our values and Principles.
I want to accept you as you are and as you want to be accepted.
If something in a worship service causes you hurt or makes you feel disrespected, please come and tell me. I want to know. I will only be more aware of what I am doing if each of you help me. I am a privileged white male who has been brought up in a culture that affirms my privilege, and I am not always able to see through your eyes, through your experiences, through your pain.
Our First Principle calls us to treat one another with worth and dignity. Without increasing our awareness, we can very easily unintentionally hurt or disrespect those around us. This Principle is not easy to live, but it is one I am committed to try to live out.
We are, each and every one of us, special, unique, and worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, worthy of being treated as we ask to be treated. And we are, each and every one of us, called to treat others as special, unique, and worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, as they ask to be treated. Sometimes that’s hard work. Many times we are not even aware that we are hurting and disrespecting those around us. I am going to do my best, you’re going to do your best, we here at this church are going to learn more about how to communicate with those who are different from us, and sometimes we will get it right and sometimes we will get it wrong. But we’re going to keep trying, because that’s who we are. We’re the love people. We’re Unitarian Universalists.